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China’s Worst Disaster

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China Power

China’s Worst Disaster

“It’s hard to reverse 30-plus years of ceaseless propaganda promoting the one-child family as the ideal.”

China’s Worst Disaster
Credit: TonyV3112 /

In 2008, a massive earthquake tore through central China’s Sichuan province. Over 70,000 people were killed in the quake. It was China’s worst disaster in over thirty years.

In an attempt to portray the human cost of this tragedy, I accompanied a group of poor migrant workers from Beijing to their distant Sichuan home town, an arduous journey over a distance akin to that between New York and Chicago that took three days and involved trains, boats, and motorcycles. The majority of workers returned to find death. Most heart-rending of all were the deaths of children, many of whom had been killed by the collapse of poorly built schools. Accentuating the tragedy: many children killed were only children, for the area near the earthquake’s epicenter had been a test-area for the one-child policy before Beijing had taken the experiment nationwide in 1980.

As a result of this, many bereaved parents were rushing to hospitals mere weeks after the tragedy, desperate to reverse sterilizations they’d been forced to have under the one-child policy. They were desperate to have a replacement child before it was too late.

For some, it already was. Laborer Zhu Jianming and his wife were 50 and 45, respectively, when he had a reverse vasectomy three weeks after the death of their teenage daughter. There was no place in their village for a childless couple, they said, and they had become social pariahs.

In the course of covering this story, I discovered that I was pregnant, an unexpected but longed-for piece of news. I had struggled for years with infertility and had been ambivalent about the disruption parenthood would have on my career as a globe-trotting reporter. But these ambiguities vanished when I learned I would be having a child, poignantly, while chronicling the loss of many.

In August, I was 11 weeks pregnant and juggling the demands of reporting the earthquake’s aftermath, as well as the upcoming Olympics, when the heartbeat stopped.

I tried to deal with the issue coolly and calmly, and was quickly back at work. After all, I rationalized, my loss was nothing to those experienced by the parents in Sichuan. Those people not only lost their only child and a lifetime of memories, but were also being ruthlessly persecuted to return to normality as soon as possible by a leadership anxious to focus on the glories of the Beijing Olympics. One parent showed me a document he’d been forced to sign, pledging to “return to normal life and normal production as soon as possible.” I had nobody pushing me to return to normal production as soon as possible, just myself.

Despite my best efforts, the guilt bubbled up. Did I hurt the pregnancy by traveling to a seismic zone? Or maybe breathing the polluted Beijing air, or getting around on a scooter… I told myself sternly not to be irrational. Miscarriages are common in the first trimester.

Upon reflection, this guilt was the spur that drove me to grapple with fertility and my reasons for parenthood, and, in the process, that led me to confront the realities the one-child policy has forced on a sixth of the world’s population.

I tried IVF in a Beijing clinic, and discovered many people there using IVF to have twins or triplets as a way of getting around the one-child policy. (Multiples are exempt from the normal fines imposed on those who have more than one child, creating a buy one, get one free mindset.) Although punitive measures had loosened somewhat since the 1990s, those who worked in government-related jobs, such as civil servants or teachers, risked losing their jobs if they violated the policy.

When the IVF treatment failed, I quit my job in China and moved to California, reasoning that a change in lifestyle and a move away from Beijing’s lung-searing pollution would help me in my quest to become a mother. A third IVF attempt proved successful, and I became pregnant with twins.

As I explored maternal services in my area, I once again encountered a side-effect of the one-child policy: birth tourism. Rising numbers of Chinese, Taiwanese and Hong Kong nationals coming to America to give birth had spawned a corresponding rise in Chinese birth centers, catering to a tradition, called zuoyuezi, which decrees that after birth the mother should endure a month-long confinement process involving a special diet of Chinese herbs. A friend directed me to “Pretty Angel’s Home” in East Los Angeles. Pretty Angels was pink and frilly, boasted 24-hour security, whirlpool tubs, a swimming pool and even a miniature golf course. It boggled my mind to think of new mothers so anxious on perfecting their golf swing they wished for this amenity, but there it was, a nice perk for a place charging $30,000 upwards.

Not all Chinese nationals coming to America for birth tourism are here because of the one-child policy, but certainly a small and well-heeled segment are.

In China, the one-child policy mandates fertility services be available only to married couples, hence stifling regulatory oversight and grey areas for things like surrogacy and egg donation. As a result, a group of wealthy Chinese are choosing America—in particular California—for the higher quality reproductive services available, the legal protections it offers to biological parents in surrogacy (unavailable in China), and, as bonus, American citizenship for their offspring.

Thus the baby flow that began in the 1990s, with Americans going to China for babies, is reversing. Now, it’s the Chinese who are coming to American shores for babies.

I wrote my book on China’s one-child policy as a meditation on the costs of parenthood, exploring the evolving reasons why we have children, and the tensions that arise when personal desires, state policy and economic realities clash.

China is now attempting to reverse the policy, which has caused a severely unbalanced population that is too old, too male, and too few. So far, loosening regulations have not let to a desired uptick in births. It’s hard to reverse 30-plus years of ceaseless propaganda promoting the one-child family as the ideal.

In 2010, I gave birth to twin boys. At bedtime, I tell them stories, recounting Chinese folk tales like the archer who shoots nine suns from the sky. Others are old chestnuts from Grimm and Andersen. In this nocturnal landscape, mothers exit, stepmothers enter, children are cast out, and wolves are eternally hungry.

One day, I will tell them about a country so poor, an Emperor ruled each family could only have one child. About how a great sadness came over the land, and how people gave away their children, or stole those of other people. And how it came to pass that there were few babies in the land, and it became a country of the old.

I don’t know the ending to this story.

I lie awake listening to them sleeping, that steady rhythm of their breathing the most peaceful and frightening sound in the world.

Mei Fong is a New America fellow. She is the author of One Child: The Story of China’s Most Radical Experiment. Follow her on TwitterThis piece was originally published in New America’s digital magazine, The New America Weekly. Sign up to get it delivered to your inbox each Thursday here, andfollow @New America on Twitter.